Category Archives: Larry Watson

If I Were Truly to Be Myself, I Would Break My Family’s Heart*

Many families have what you might call a family culture. Members are a part of that culture, and live by its values. Sometimes, though, a family member decides not to be a part of the family culture – to be a nonconformist. That can be difficult, since that can cause a rift in a family. But it can add richness to a group, too.

That plot point – the family ‘oddball,’ if you will – can add to a story, as well. There are all sorts of possibilities there for conflict, for a ‘whodunit’ plot, and so on. And there are plenty of examples in crime fiction. Here are just a few.

In Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder For Christmas and A Holiday For Murder) we are introduced to the Lee family. Patriarch Simeon Lee is both malicious and tyrannical, so no-one in the family enjoys his company. Still, he is also very wealthy, and has a strong personality. So, when he invites his children and their spouses to spend Christmas at the family home, Gorston Hall, no-one refuses the invitation. On Christmas Eve, Lee is murdered in his private room. Hercule Poirot is in the area, spending the holiday with a friend, so he works with Superintendent Sugden to find out who the killer is. As he does, he gets to know the various members of the Lee family. One of them is David Lee, who’s an artist. In many ways, he’s a family nonconformist. He’s not in the family business, like his brother Alfred; and he’s not in a ‘respectable’ line of work, like his brother George, who’s an MP. He doesn’t even physically resemble his siblings, really. And his father makes it clear that he has little but contempt for David. All of this definitely makes David a ‘person of interest’ in the novel.

Leonardo Padura’s Havana Red features Havana police detective Mario Conde. It takes place in 1989, during the full heat of a Caribbean summer. Conde’s been in ‘exile’ in the police bureaucracy; but his boss, Major Antonio Rangel, gives him a reprieve when a delicate murder case comes up. The body of a young man dressed in a woman’s red dress has been discovered in Havana Park. The victim is soon identified as Alexis Arayán, son of powerful and well-connected diplomat Faustino Arayán. Because of Arayán’s position, this case will have to be handled very quietly and carefully. One possibility is that the victim committed suicide, and that’s not out of the question. At that time, and in that place, to be a homosexual (or even perceived as one) brings with it all sorts of awful social consequences. That’s especially true in a family like this one. There’s also the possibility that this was a murder – the hate crime that it seems on the surface. There are other leads, too. In the end, we learn who killed Alexis Arayán. As we do, we also learn about his life, and about what it’s like to be a nonconformist, especially in a high-profile family.

Larry Watson’s Montana 1948 is the story of the Hayden family. The Hayden name is very respected in Mercer County, Montana, and family patriarch Julian Hayden is proud of that. One of his sons, Frank, is a decorated World War II veteran, and the highly-esteemed local doctor. The other son, Wesley, is the local sheriff – also respected. With him live his wife, Gail, and his son, David. Everything changes for the Haydens during one terrible summer. Wesley’s housekeeper, Marie Little Soldier, falls ill with pneumonia. She refuses to have Frank called in, and at first, won’t explain why. Then, she finally admits the reason. For years, Frank has been raping his female patients at the Fort Warren (Sioux) Reservation. No-one ever spoke out because the family is too powerful. Besides, who would believe the story? Then, Marie suddenly dies. At first, it looks like a sudden relapse, although she had been doing better. But there are also hints that it might have been murder. And Frank was seen near the house on the day of Marie’s death. Now, Wesley’s faced with a terrible set of choices. If Marie’s allegations are true, then his brother is a serial rapist. He may be a murderer, too. At the same time, this is Wesley’s brother, and a well-respected doctor. What’s more, Julian Hayden strongly supports Frank. Wesley has to decide whether to conform to the family culture, or arrest his brother. It’s an awful dilemma, and it changes the family permanently.

There are also plenty of fictional sleuths who don’t conform to their family’s culture, and that can present real challenges for them. For instance, there’s Geraldine Evans’ Detective Inspector (DI) Joe Rafferty of the Elmhurst CID in Essex. He’s from a large, working-class Irish family, most of whom have no use for the police. Several, in fact, are involved in somewhat dubious ‘enterprises’ that wouldn’t stand up under scrutiny. Rafferty knows quite well that he’s a nonconformist, and that does make life difficult for him at times:

‘His family was the limit, especially as some of them were of the opinion that if they must have a copper in the family, he might at least have the decency to be a bent one.’

Unfortunately for his family, he’s not ‘bent.’

Sulari Gentill’s Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair is a member of a very wealthy, ‘blueblood’ New South Wales family. At the time the novels take place (the 1930s), the worldwide Great Depression is in full force, and millions of people are out of work or worse. Families like the Sinclairs, though, are more or less insulated from much of the financial upheaval. They’re aware of what’s going on, and they’re certainly not unaffected. But they are in a good position, and families like that want to keep it that way. Rowly’s brother, Wilfred, has that attitude, and tends to be conservative in his thinking. He’s also conscious of the family’s name and reputation. But Rowly doesn’t conform to that view. He’s got friends in all social categories, and with all sorts of political leanings. It sometimes makes for conflict between the brothers. But it also makes for an interesting dynamic.

There’s also S.J  Rozan’s Chin Ling Wan-ju, who usually goes by the name Lydia Chin. She’s an American-born Chinese PI, who lives and works in New York’s Chinatown. Her mother and siblings live more or less traditional Chinese lives, and their family culture reflects those values. So, as you can imagine, Chin’s mother would like her to find a Chinese husband, marry, and settle down, like a ‘proper’ daughter does. On the one hand, Chin does love and respect her mother, and she appreciates her Chinese culture. She shares some of the beliefs, too. But she is a nonconformist. She is in no rush to find a husband, and she really likes the PI work she does. It all makes for some tense moments, but that nonconformity also adds both to Chin’s character and to the layers of plot.

Characters who don’t conform to the family culture can bring all sorts of trouble on themselves. But they can also be really interesting. And that sort of dynamic can add much to a story or series.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Matthew Wilder and David Zippel’s Reflection. 


Filed under Agatha Christie, Geraldine Evans, Larry Watson, Leonardo Padura, S.J. Rozan, Sulari Gentill

You Dropped a Bomb on Me*

You know the sort of moment. You’re reading a novel, perhaps even drawn into it, when all of a sudden, the author, or a character, drops a proverbial bombshell. It’s usually (but certainly not always) a piece of information. And although such bombshells don’t always result in major plot twists, they certainly add to the suspense of a story.

Bombshells are, perhaps, easier to do in film than in books. Filmmakers can use tools such as facial expressions, atmospheric lighting and music, and so on, to add to the suspense of a bombshell. But even then, they’re a bit tricky. Too much of a bombshell, and you stretch credibility and risk melodrama. Not enough, and you could lose the reader’s interest. But when they’re done carefully, a bombshell can add to a story.

Sometimes, in crime fiction, the bombshell is the identity of the murderer. Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is like that. When retired business magnate Roger Ackroyd is stabbed one night in his study, the most likely suspect seems to be his stepson, Captain Ralph Paton. For one thing, Paton had motive. For another, he went missing on the night of the murder, and hasn’t been seen since. So, the police assume he’s on the run from them. Paton’s fiancée, Flora Ackroyd, doesn’t think he’s guilty, though, and asks Hercule Poirot to clear his name. Poirot agrees, and looks into the matter. Fans of this story know that the dénouement contains a major bombshell having to do with the killer’s identity, and that bombshell brought Christie a lot of criticism at the time. It certainly changes the way one sees the book.

In one plot thread of Len Deighton’s Berlin Game, MI6 has discovered that there’s a KGB agent in a very high position at the agency’s London Central offices. Whoever the mole is, that person has access to highly classified information, to say nothing of private information about MI6 members. So, finding out that person’s identity is an urgent matter. Bernie Sansom is a middle-aged former field agent, who now has a desk job at the London Central offices, so he’s in a good position to try to catch the mole. This leads to an important bombshell piece of information that has a profound impact on the agency, on Sansom, and on the other two books in this trilogy.

In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, we are introduced to Eva Wirenström-Berg, her husband, Henrik, and their six-year-old son, Axel. Eva has what she thinks is the perfect ‘white picket fence’ life – the one she’s always dreamed of having. Then a bombshell drops. She discovers that Henrik has been unfaithful. Devastated by the news, Eva is determined to find out who the other woman is. When she does, she makes her own plans, and things soon begin to spin tragically out of control. In this case, the bombshell isn’t a murderer’s or other criminal’s identity. But it has a powerful impact on what happens in the novel.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch has certainly had his ups and downs when it comes to romance. But, in The Black Echo, he meets FBI agent Eleanor Wish; and, over the course of time, they fall in love. In fact, it’s not spoiling the series to say that they marry at the end of Trunk Music. The magic doesn’t last, though, for several reasons. So, by the time of Angels Flight, the two split up. But there’s more to come. In Lost Light, Bosch has officially retired from the police force. But he’s still haunted by the four-year-old murder of production assistant Angella Benton, who was murdered in the vestibule of her apartment building. So, he starts to ask questions unofficially. The case turns out to have an FBI connection, which leads Bosch to his ex-wife. And that’s when he learns that he has a daughter, Maddie, whom he’s never met. It’s a real shock to Bosch, and certainly changes the course of the novels that follow Lost Light.

Larry Watson’s Montana 1948 is the story of the coming of age of twelve-year-old Daniel Hayden. As the title suggests, the real action in the story takes place a few years after World War II, in Bentrock, the county seat of Mercer County, Montana. David lives a more or less settled life with his parents, Gail and Wayne (Mercer County’s sheriff). Everything changes when the family’s housekeeper, Marie Little Soldier, falls ill with pneumonia. To everyone’s shock, she refuses to let Wayne’s brother, Frank, treat her. Frank Hayden is a well-known and well-respected doctor, and no-one really understands why she wouldn’t want his help. Then, she drops a bombshell. It seems that Frank has been raping some of his patients who come from the Fort Warren (Sioux) Indian Reservation. Nobody’s come forward before this because the Hayden name is too powerful. But Marie swears that it’s all true, and admits that she’s been one of the doctor’s victims, herself. This bombshell is devastating to the Hayden family, and has a tragic outcome.

Those explosive pieces of information have to be handled carefully, as all explosives do. They have to fall out naturally from the plot, and they’re often more powerful if they’re not presented in an overly dramatic way. That said, though, they can add a great deal to a story, and show some different sides of characters, too. Which fictional bombshell revelations have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by The Gap Band.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Karin Alvtegen, Larry Watson, Len Deighton, Michael Connelly

In The Spotlight: Larry Watson’s Montana 1948

>In The Spotlight: Ross Macdonald's The Far Side of the DollarHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Sometimes, the experience of coming of age happens more or less peacefully. Other times, it’s traumatic. Either way, coming of age often leaves an indelible mark on a person. Let’s take a look at a dramatic coming of age today, and turn the spotlight on Larry Watson’s Montana 1948.

The real action of the story begins in the small town of Bentrock, the county seat of Mercer County, Montana. It’s 1948, and twelve-year-old David Hayden has what he thinks is a settled existence with his parents, Wesley and Gail.  Wesley Hayden is the sheriff of Mercer County; but as a rule, that doesn’t amount to much more than locking up drunks until they sober up. Life has a predictable routine, and the Hayden name is a respected one in the area.

Everything changes when the family’s housekeeper, Marie Little Soldier, falls ill with pneumonia. To everyone’s shock, she refuses to allow Wesley’s brother Frank, a well-known doctor, to treat her. At first, she won’t explain why, but finally she confesses. As it turns out, Frank Hayden has been raping some of his female patients from the local Fort Warren (Sioux) Indian Reservation. No-one has spoken out against him because the Hayden name is too powerful. Besides, who would believe the story? Marie admits that she, too, has been one of the doctor’s victims.

Then, Marie dies. At first it looks very much like a sudden relapse, although she’d been doing much better. But there are pieces of evidence that don’t add up. Why, for instance, was Frank near the house on the day she died? And what about the accusations of rape?

Now, Wesley Hayden is faced with a terrible choice. It’s very likely that his brother is a serial rapist. He could be a murderer, too, if he killed Marie to keep her quiet. So, on the one hand, Wesley has to do his job. On the other hand, this is his brother, who happens to be a decorated World War II veteran. What’s more, he is a highly respected doctor, and an accusation against him shouldn’t be made lightly. There’s also the fact that Wesley and Frank’s parents are very supportive of Frank.

Finally, Wesley comes up with a solution of sorts. To save his brother from the humiliation of imprisonment, he locks Frank up in his (Wesley’s) home. That way, he’ll be able to investigate the allegations against Frank. This doesn’t by any means resolve the issue, though, Now, the family is torn apart, and David has to cope with divided loyalties and ugly revelations about his family. As he looks back many years later, we see the impact of what happens as a result of the investigation.

While this isn’t, strictly speaking, billed as a crime story, it certainly has crime as its central focus. And in this case, the crime is against members of the Sioux community. So, one element in the novel is the relationship between the local whites and the Native Americans. Conscience drives Wesley Hayden to investigate, but the culture of the times is very much against him. There’s sometimes blatant racism as people react to what happened. There’s also the very understandable fact that few people at Fort Warren trust a white man (especially the brother of the accused) to get justice. Still, Wesley pursues the case.

Another element in this novel is the impact of the case on the Hayden family. On the surface, the family seemed like ‘the perfect American family.’ But underneath, there’s been denial of what Frank was doing and dysfunction in the way the two sons were treated (Frank’s a war hero; Wesley couldn’t serve because of health issues). So, when this investigation comes up, a very fragile family structure is severely threatened.

The story is told from David’s point of view, so we see the events from two perspectives, really. The young David is confused, torn between people he loves, and just beginning to be aware of his family’s standing in the community and of the realities of prejudice in the area. The adult David sees things, as you’d expect, from a more mature point of view. It doesn’t change what happened (and some of it is ugly), but he’s come to an understanding of his family members and of the events, and of his own helplessness to do much about anything at the time. Watson uses this strategy to reveal the truth about the family that lies just underneath the surface.

The story takes place in small-town Montana, just after World War II, and Watson offers a sense of life in that type of community at that time. People know one another, and depend on one another. This makes it especially difficult for Wesley Hayden. Everyone will know the Hayden family business, and there are people who feel strongly that the doctor’s reputation is a lot more important than the welfare of the local Sioux women.

This isn’t a long story (my edition clocked in at 197 pages). So, it focuses more on that one pivotal year than it does on a long family or local history. Still, Watson offers complex background on the Hayden family as well as on the town of Bentrock.

Montana 1948 tells the story of some terrible crimes, and of the impact they have on a family, and on a community. It also shows the effect of denial, and of the way it can be used to cover up some awful realities. It takes place in a distinct post-war, small-town atmosphere, and features a young boy who’s trying to make sense of it all. But what’s your view? Have you read Montana 1948? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


Coming Up On In The Spotlight


Monday 14 November/Tuesday, 15 November – The Eye of Jade – Diane Wei Liang

Monday, 21 November/Tuesday, 22 November – Rule 34 – Charles Stross

Monday, 28 November/Tuesday, 29 November – The Secret River – Kate Grenville


Filed under Larry Watson, Montana 1948

And Now I Know You Will Satisfy Me*

Banned Crime NovelsCrime novels often deal with controversial subjects and difficult issues. They’re not always easy to read. Sometimes even high-quality crime novels that are very well-written can make the reader uncomfortable. So it shouldn’t be surprising that some novels that are arguably crime novels have also shown up on lists of banned or challenged books (by ‘challenged’ I mean cases where a formal request was made to remove a book from a library or a school). Some of these stories are more obvious examples of crime novels than others are. But either way, I thought it would be interesting to have a look at some of the titles that have made banned/challenged lists.

Interestingly, these novels haven’t been banned or challenged because they included crime (although in some cases, the reason cited has been violence). They’ve been banned or challenged at different times and in different places, so the circumstances aren’t the same for each story either. That said, here are a few examples.

Several of John Steinbeck’s novels and stories have been challenged or banned. Among them is Of Mice and Men. That novella tells the story of George Milton and Lennie Small, two farm workers who are on their way from their former employer to a new ranch. Lennie is of limited intelligence, but he is a loyal (and large, strong) friend to George. They’ve had to leave their jobs because Lennie was accused of attempted rape when he wouldn’t let go of a young woman’s dress because he enjoyed stroking it. He and George are hoping to one day have a ranch of their own, but in the meantime, they take jobs at a new ranch. Trouble follows them though, this time in the form of an arrogant and dangerous boss’ son and his flirtatious wife. Matters get progressively worse until there’s a tragic death. Steinbeck doesn’t really end this story happily, either.

Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery was also banned for a time. It’s the story of a small town and the very unusual lottery that it engages in each year. Every family chooses one member to draw from the black carved box that’s been used for the lottery for as long as anyone can remember. As the story of that lottery and one family’s participation in it goes on, we see the real nature of the lottery. If you’d like to find out (or remind yourself) about this particular lottery, the story is right here.

Another book that’s been banned or challenged is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. In that novel, Tom Robinson, who is Black, is accused of raping Mayella Ewell, who is White. It’s bad enough that this is an alleged rape; it’s worse that the events take place at a time and in a small-town culture where racism and segregation are rigidly enforced facts of life. Successful attorney Atticus Finch takes Robinson’s case despite the enormous public pressure to let the locals take the law into their own hands. As Finch investigates, he finds that this case is not nearly as clear-cut as it seems on the surface.

There’s also Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. That’s the fictional retelling of an actual murder case. In 1959, Kansas farmer Herb Clutter, his wife Bonnie Mae and his children Nancy Mae and Kenyon were murdered at their home. Richard Hickock and Perry Smith were arrested, tried and convicted of the murders. In this instance the motive for the murders was money. The two murderers had heard that Clutter kept a large amount of money hidden on his farm. That wasn’t true, but the killers believed it was and killed the Clutter family. Then they went on the run until they were caught at the end of that year. Capote’s novel tells about these crimes as well as about the murderers’ lives.

More recently, Larry Watson’s Montana 1948 has been on banned/challenged lists. This is the story of the Hayden family of Bentrock, Montana. Wesley Hayden is the local sheriff; his brother Frank is the local doctor. When Marie Little Soldier, who lives in the area, falls ill, Frank is called in to assist, but Marie won’t allow him near her. Then it comes out that it’s because, as she alleges, Frank’s been molesting the local Native American women. Then Marie dies. Now Wesley has to investigate his own brother, both for the alleged rapes and for murder. His choice to go ahead with the case tragically divides the Hayden family. The story is told from the perspective of Wesley’s son David, who is reflecting on it as a grown man.

You could also argue that Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which has also appeared on banned/challenged lists, has several elements of the crime novel. This novel traces the life of Sethe, a slave who escaped from Kentucky to Ohio. But although she’s physically free of the plantation, she’s not really free. She, her daughter Denver and (until they leave home) her sons Howard and Buglar live quietly enough in Cincinnati, but are haunted, possibly quite literally, by a ghost. Some (especially Denver) say it’s the ghost of Sethe’s baby daughter – a child who was killed before she could grow up. As the story goes on, we learn about Sethe’s slavery in Kentucky, the events that led to her escape, and the tragic death that has everything to do with what happens later in the story.

These stories have all been highly regarded. They’ve won all sorts of prizes and awards, and their authors have gotten much praise and attention. At the same time, they’ve been placed, for various reasons, on banned/challenged lists.

Now of course, winning an award is no guarantee that a book is truly great. And it’s certainly no guarantee that an individual reader will enjoy it. At the same time, being challenged or banned says absolutely nothing about a book’s quality either, or about its appeal for an individual reader. Speaking strictly for myself, I’d rather take a chance that an award-winning book will disappoint me than not have the opportunity to find out for myself.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Rolling Stones’ Let’s Spend the Night Together. A song that was itself censored…..


Filed under Harper Lee, John Steinbeck, Larry Watson, Shirley Jackson, Toni Morrison, Truman Capote